On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.
As a one-time staff editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, I am biased in favor of that plucky enterprise and its approach to the world.
As a one-time chief editor of US News & World Report, I am all too aware of the fatuousness imperfections of its college-ranking system. Being a pioneer in ranking has been the economic salvation of US News. But the premise that vastly different institutions can be precisely ranked on overall quality has its obvious limits. What are the "best" ten lines of work, ranked one through ten, for your child to aspire to? What are the "best" twenty-five cities to live in -- or pieces of music to listen to, or food to eat? Or people to marry? The only sane answer is, "it depends," which is the answer when it comes to colleges and universities too.
As it happens, I wrote those two preceding paragraphs nine full years ago, during the 2009 version of “college ranking week” for a number of national magazines.
The gist of the early critiques, beyond (serious) disputes about factors that were included and excluded, and the very idea that institutions as different as the University of Minnesota and Pomona could be ranked on a precise linear scale, involved the monoculture dominance of this single ranking system. As you might put it, and in fact as I put it nine years ago:
The practical solution to ranking mania is not to try to eliminate them -- it's too late -- but instead to crowd the field so that no one "Best Colleges" list has disproportionate influence.
Toward that end, The Washington Monthly's latest iteration of its college rankings is valuable simply for existing and adding diversity to the ranking field. It's more valuable than that, because of the way it carries through its analysis about the traits we really should value in universities, plus letting people tailor their own rankings based on the qualities that matter most to them.
Three years ago in The Atlantic, Alia Wong explained how far the healthy proliferation of rankings had spread—again, at least partly offsetting the distortions of any one scale—and Li Zhou surveyed them and noted how different their judgments of “best college” were. Stanford was on top on one scale, Washington and Lee on another, CalTech on another, UC Irvine on yet one more.
This is all prelude to this year’s cycle, in which the US News rankings are more or less what they have traditionally been, and The Washington Monthlyextends its practice of ranking schools not just on strictly “academic” metrics but on their broader effect on the nation. As Kevin Carey says in an introduction to this year’s TWM college edition:
Thirteen years ago, the Washington Monthly set out to solve a problem. The higher education market was dominated by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which reward wealth, fame, and exclusivity. College leaders responded to the temptation of better U.S. News scores by raising prices, chasing status, and marketing themselves to the children of privilege.
We thought the nation needed exactly the opposite: smart, well-run colleges that enrolled students from all walks of life and helped them earn a high-quality diploma at an affordable price. Colleges that instilled a sense of service and public obligation while producing groundbreaking research.
So we decided to do something about it and create our own ranking—not based on what colleges do for themselves, but on what they do for their country. After all, everyone benefits when colleges push the boundaries of scientific discovery and provide paths to opportunity for the next generation of low-income students. And everyone pays for college, through taxes and other forms of public support.
This year’s innovation is to provide—not in place of, but in addition to, the previous ranking metrics—a guide to how colleges compare on vocational certificates. Nursing, auto-engine or airplane-engine technicians, welding and other (good-paying) skilled-trade jobs—this kind of training has traditionally been disdained by “ambitious” institutions and students.
But as TWM’s editor Paul Glastris lays out in this article, jobs in this category are essential to American business resilience and, more important, to greater economic opportunity and justice. As I’ve argued in The Atlantic — in this piece about “career technical” education in Georgia, and this one about maker-movement manufacturing startups in Kentucky, and this overview article this past May--and in the new book I wrote with my wife, Deb Fallows, “career technical education” may be this era’s most important part of the U.S. schooling system.
The rationale is similar to what Audrey M. Hutchinson, of the National League of Cities, laid out in this essay, “Community Colleges Will Shape the Workforce of the Future.” I won’t belabor a case you can read elsewhere (including at many of these links), but the essential point is: since the era’s main economic problems are inequality, disruption, and blocked opportunity, institutions that can match people with the era’s fastest-growing skilled jobs are newly important.
Deb and I will have more in this space about community colleges, vocational certificates, career-technical programs in high schools, and other aspects of this valuable next wave in American education. For now, please check out TWM and its steadily expanding approach to rankings.
Two years ago at this time, when my wife, Deb, and I were in our fourth year of travel across the country to report on smaller towns, we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the lakefront city of Erie, Pennsylvania.
The initial attraction was a primal sense of topophilia on Deb’s part, or fondness for a particular landscape. She had grown up in a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, 150 miles to the west on the other side of Cleveland. The summer-evening sky, air, and sound of Erie’s lake walks were as familiar for her as they were exotic to me.
As we made return trips (even in colder weather) and learned more about the layers of modern Erie, we became more absorbed by it, and connected to it, on both intellectual and emotional levels.
The intellectual appeal is one I set out two years ago in a post called “Erie and America.” It was based on the area’s role as a collision-point and real-time arena for almost every significant trend in modern American society, negative and positive alike. The way this balance plays out in Erie, and in similarly-situated places we visited like San Bernardino and Fresno and Allentown and Charleston, West Virginia, will help determine which will be the dominant tone in the next stage of American life. Will it be the poison, dysfunction, polarization, and mistrust of national-level politics? Or the widespread, dispersed signs of renewal that Deb and I have argued, in our Atlanticarticles and our new book Our Towns, can be the proving-grounds and momentum-builders for the next era of national renewal?
At first glance the city can seem a shorthand for America’s heavy-industrial distress—a huge vacant downtown factory with broken-out skylights, amid smaller also-abandoned workshops; local news accounts about the latest in the long, sad string of layoffs at GE’s mainstay locomotive plant. (Whose production lines, by the way, are being moved not to Mexico or China but to Texas.) Every social ill of contemporary America has left its mark on Erie: racial polarization and tension (including a recent calculation that Erie was “the worst city for black Americans,” in terms of income gap relative to whites), the abuse of opioids and other drugs, homelessness, job loss, and a cruelly unfair state school-funding system whose consequences were so dire that a few years back city threatened simply to close its public high schools.
Yet on second glance—and fifth, and 10th—this same, battered Erie became even more remarkable to us as the locus of countervailing, creative forces.
I won’t go through the whole list again, which we discussed in articles you can find here (and in our book). But the elements include an ambitious higher-ed establishment, with several liberal-arts universities plus Penn State’s Behrend campus, where I spent an afternoon looking at advanced-manufacturing initiatives (like successful ones I’d seen from South Carolina to Michigan to Kentucky to California). We also witnessed an accelerated version of a formula we had seen in a number of other midwest and northeastern “Rust Belt” cities trying to turn themselves into a “Chrome Belt”: The hope of offsetting the loss of native-born young families by recruiting, welcoming, and integrating immigrants and refugees (as Deb explained here and here). Erie also boasts a downtown revival movement, led simultaneously by the city’s home-grown and downtown-based Fortune 500 company, Erie Insurance, whose longtime CEO and now chairman, Tom Hagen, is in his 80s; by successful tech entrepreneurs like Joel Deuterman, now in his 50s; and by a 20s-and-30s generation of artists, activists, technologists, and business people (who you can see in a great video here).
Erie has an active performing-arts and music scene. Its Jefferson Educational Society runs ambitious live events and research programs, in a model that is a rough counterpart to California’s Commonwealth Club or the 92nd Street Y in New York. We became fans of the alt-weeklyErie Reader. In the same downtown building as the Reader’s offices is a tech startup space, called Radius CoWork, similar to what you’d find in any hip town. (See for yourself.)
These conflicting trends—so discouraging, potentially so positive—have made the city intellectually compelling. Over our months of exposure, the people, of all ages and a wide range of backgrounds, who have thrown themselves into this renewal effort have won our emotional support.
And one small group of them has won our business support as well.
A cumulative surprise of our travels since 2013 was what I thought of as talent-dispersion, or the “reverse talent flow.” There are more and more opportunities, for a larger range of businesses, in more places away from the big cities, than there were a decade or two ago. A detectable flow of people are taking advantage of them.
Through modern history, ambitious people from the hinterland have sought their fortune in the biggest, most vibrant metropolises. Englanders and Scots going to London, French provincials to Paris, Chinese to Shanghai and now Shenzhen, and Americans to the metropolises mainly on the coasts. For as long as American literature has existed, it has chronicled the movement of people from farm, to village, to each era’s booming urban centers. (Pick your American classic novel, from Sister Carrie to Invisible Man, and you’re likely to find elements of this theme.)
That concentrating flow will of course continue, as one glance at construction cranes in Seattle or housing prices in the Bay Area will confirm. But a combination of those same hyper-inflated real-estate costs, and the rise of location-specific high-value industries (like “precision agriculture” startups in farming areas ) plus ever-improving tools for remote work, have powered what tech entrepreneur Steve Case calls the “rise of the rest.” By that he means increased opportunities for talented people who might have moved to Chicago or Boston or LA, but who decide that the overall prospects are more promising in Birmingham or Columbus or Omaha.
In our travels we have met some of these people, and we’ve written about the new business niches they had found, with: agriculture-related technology, in South Dakota and Central Valley California; aerospace technology, in Minnesota and Oregon; logistics and advanced retail systems in Ohio; high-value manufacturing in Kansas and South Carolina and Kentucky; plus other opportunities elsewhere.
And, in the case of Erie, web-design work from Epic Web Studios.
Epic’s co-founders are David Hunter, now age 34 and CEO, and Shaun Rajewski, now 29 and lead developer. They started the company nine years ago, at ages 25 and 20, respectively (and in the depths of the post-2008 financial crash), on the belief that it would be possible to create a first-tier Internet-design company far away from the normal tech centers, in the place where they had grown up. They had no outside capital or investors, and they ran the company initially on the “self-exploitation” financing model familiar from so many startup stories.
Hunter had worked in New York but wanted to come home to start a business and raise a family (with his wife, Jessica, also an Erie native). “After high school, I left Erie as soon as possible, eager to leave the region in search of ‘bigger and better,’” he told me. “I started college at Fordham in New York. I loved it there, but after a lot of consideration, I realized how important my family and my friends really were to me so during my junior year I decided to move back to Erie with an entirely different outlook on the city.”
Rajewski’s story is like that of some other tech entrepreneurs we met in Erie (and their counterparts in Greenville and Duluth and Redlands and Fresno etc). The similarity is that as Epic has grown, he has continued to re-decide to stay in his small community (with his wife, Karrah and their family), rather than take offers with Facebook, Google, or other big-time companies in the Bay Area or Seattle.
Over these nine-plus years, Epic has become a modest but steadily expanding success. It has some 400 clients for its web work, in North America and internationally. It has developed an app intended to help local newspapers in the pursuit of their Holy Grail (that is, engagement and “stickiness” from local readers), and other apps like ASAPmaps, which is intended to help local businesses improve their visibility within Google maps. Epic argues that its services match what’s available anywhere else, but that its prices can be much lower, because of the difference in salaries and real-estate costs.
Hunter and Rajewski have created more than a dozen full-time tech jobs in Erie — not many in the grand scheme of things, but a dozen more than would exist without them. Like other locally founded tech firms we’ve seen around the country, they view their own survival and success as being closely connected with the whole city’s prospects. Thus Epic does extensive volunteer work for local non-profits and civic institutions, the value of which Hunter says comes to over half a million dollars of in-kind contribution.
“Epic's workforce includes a lot of folks who are from Erie, moved away to start a career, and were recruited back to the region to work with our team,” Hunter told me this week in an email. “Others were planning to leave the region and stayed because of the opportunity to grow their career while contributing to the growth of Erie, PA.”
Why do I mention all this? Not just because it’s another local data point but also because Deb and I took Epic’s work seriously enough to start doing business with them ourselves, as customers. Two years ago, Epic’s team developed a website for a civic group in Washington D.C. that we are part of, and whose background I have described here. (News updates for the site are here.)
Like all modern authors, we also have a website for our new book. This, too, is something we wanted Epic to develop for us (it’s here). As the months go on we plan to work with them, as normal customers, to expand this as a platform for exchanging the kinds of stories we have heard around the country, connecting people and groups large (like New America or Esri) and small (like the Center for Rural Affairs) that are working toward similar ends in different locations, and using maps and other tools to illustrate both problems and solutions.
Does the business our family provides matter? In any grand sense, obviously not. I mention it to show that our observation about talent-dispersal is more than just talk on our part. We take it seriously enough that we are willing to vote with our personal dollars, to present our own message through this company’s staff and skills.
“I am incredibly passionate about my hometown of Erie, PA,” David Hunter said in a recent message to me. “The city is a lot of fun (we're one of only 8 cities nationwide that lets you drink in the streets!), it’s incredibly affordable (here's a 5,400 sq. ft. Victorian Mansion for sale at $139,900), and there's always something new going on (here's a sample of the calendar for just one week ).”
The Onionoffers periodic dispatches from Don Turnbee, “America’s Fast-Food Critic,” who is always identified as hailing from Erie. Hunter said that he takes perverse joy and pride in those Onion shout-outs, as part of a younger-generation embrace of the city’s defiant-underdog status. (This is an attitude we also saw among Hunter’s counterparts in places like San Bernardino, Fresno, Ajo, and Duluth.) “Erie’s been a weird city (in a good way) for as long as I can remember,” he told me. “I think Erie’s weirdness, though hard to quantify, is one of our greatest assets because it makes us a unique place that’s hard to forget.”
As for the city’s problems, “there are certainly plenty of examples that make it difficult to live here as well,” he says. “To pretend it’s some sort of utopia would never work because the city is full of cold, thankless and unflattering qualities too. But there are countless people who work to improve those things every single day. I am incredibly thankful for their efforts because I see the change happening before my eyes every day.”
How will Erie look 10 years from now? I have no idea, just as I cannot say how the struggle between national-level darkness and local-level renewal will eventually balance out. But I offer the story of Epic Web Studios and its founders and staff as one more illustration of how different the texture of the country can look from a city-by-city perspective, than it does from the bleak prospect of the national news.
The picture below is how it looked six months ago, when we were headed westward from Gaithersburg airport, outside Washington, to Redlands, California, where we’ve spent the intervening months. (This note follows up on two previous cross-country flying reports, here and here.)
It was below freezing back then; the wind was howling; we had an electric heater (the yellow cord) plugged into the plane overnight to keep its engine block warm enough to have a chance of actually starting. The second before this picture was taken I was saying, “I cannot believe it is this cold!” And the stuff around our feet is more or less what we’ve lived off in the past few book-writing months.
This afternoon, we arrived back in Gaithersburg, on what will probably (sigh!) be our final cross-country trip in this airplane. As we did with its predecessor when we moved to China 11 years ago, we must (sadly) sell this plane before heading to England late this summer. It has served us well. And we’ll hope to rent planes while overseas, and to buy back into the used-plane market on our return.
In closing the loop from the previous reports, here was FlightAware’s version of the route from Red Oak, Iowa, to the DC area today, with a stop for gas in Muncie, Indiana.
Long-term advice for your Fourth of July enjoyment: Nearly twenty years ago, when we were living in Berkeley, California, we happened to be flying in our earlier-model Cirrus airplane from southern California, where my parents lived, back to our home in Berkeley (really, the nearest airport, in Concord) on the evening of July 4. Going up through the Central Valley, in twilight, we saw from above the fireworks celebrations in Bakersfield, in Fresno, in Hanford, in Merced, in Modesto, in Stockton. Highly recommended if you ever have or make the chance.
I mentioned last night that we’d devised a plan to pick our way through passes and valleys in the Rockies, to get from the western slope — at Rifle airport in Colorado, a little more than an hour’s drive west of Aspen — to the other side of the continental divide. Here, from yesterday’s installment, was the plan:
Today things went more or less as forecast. We climbed out of Rifle and headed in the “wrong” direction, down the Colorado River valley toward the west, until we’d gained enough altitude to turn back eastward through the passes. (For the aviation crowd: we did the first part of this trip at 11,500 feet, and then 12,500 feet for the highest 45 minutes or so — and, yes, as is both required by rules and advisable for safety, I had a supplemental-oxygen can that I took hits from.)
Here is how the “actual” route looked today, via Flight Aware — “actual” in quotes, because of the odd mis-readings the Flight Aware recaps occasionally give. The green line is our path, according to air-traffic control radar as rendered by Flight Aware. This version picks up our radar track about 20 minutes into the flight, somewhere around the Kremling waypoint (the RLG VOR, for the aviation crowd). The path we took resembled what we’d planned:
Also as foreseen, we made an early refueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, which is just past Cheyenne and the Wyoming-Nebraska border and is marked as IBM on the map. I hadn’t wanted the plane to be any heavier than necessary for the high-altitude Rockies portion of the journey, so once we got beyond the mountains, and into Nebraska, we took on more fuel. (There are people who enjoy mountain flying. I am not one of them.) Then onward across Nebraska, at a comfortable distance south of a static line of thunderstorms, to an overnight stay in the familiar town of Red Oak, Iowa, which is not far across the Missouri River from Omaha and is shown as RDK on the map.
We decided to stop and stay in Red Oak, rather than pushing on across Iowa or into Illinois, because it is in a way responsible for all of the travels and reports Deb and I have done over the past few years. Back in the summer of 2012, when we were headed westward from Washington to that year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, by chance we happened to stop for the night in Red Oak. We were amazed by the intensity of civic activity at the airport itself, as we’ll describe in our forthcoming book — and then spent an evening talking with a family from Jalisco, in Mexico, who had opened a very popular restaurant called Casa de Oro on the main drag in Red Oak. We spent the next few days saying to each other: if so much is going on, by such a variety of people, in a little place we had not paid attention to, what must be happening elsewhere?
This afternoon we came back to Red Oak, in the dead-calm wind conditions that make an approach to landing feel like swimming through the sky. In the evening we returned to Case de Oro, which appeared to be thriving. Tomorrow, on to the east coast.
The book is now (nearly) done; we’ve been occupied wall-to-wall over the past week-plus at the 2017 installment of the Aspen Ideas Festival; and tomorrow we begin the small-plane journey back to the East Coast, where we’ll rejoin the Atlantic staff, actually finish off the book, and get ready for our upcoming relocation to England.
This is a placeholder note with an aviation angle, on the way you deal with the Rocky Mountains if you’re flying a small, piston-powered, single-engine airplane.
Usually we have had to approach Aspen from the east, coming from Washington. Twice I’ve flown our propeller plane into the Aspen airport, and — having survived — I choose never to do that again. Instead we’ve landed at some flatland airport in the Denver area, either Centennial to the south of Denver or Boulder to the north, and then rented a car for the three-to-four hour drive into Aspen.
This year we were coming from the west, from our early-2017 base at the San Bernardino airport in California, with its elegant facility called Luxivair. A week ago we flew from there to the airport in Rifle, Colorado, on the relative flatlands of the Colorado River valley on the western slope of the Rockies, and rented a car for the hour-plus drive into Aspen.
Tomorrow, we start the route back east, in placid weather and with a comparatively benign course plotted to get past the Rockies and out onto the long descent eastward — across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and then over the Appalachians to the eastern seaboard. Here are the waypoint for the lowland route out of Rifle, through a series of valleys and passes, until we escape from the really challenging terrain around Laramie, Wyoming:
Then we’ll spend tomorrow night somewhere in Iowa or Illinois — maybe Red Oak, maybe Ottumwa, maybe Peoria, all dots on the map below, and all depending on how we feel, and the weather — and then onward to the DC area in time for festivities on the Fourth of July.
I’ve sort of missed, sort of not, having an online outlet. But ready to re-enter the fray. More to come — and if you’re in Nebraska or Iowa tomorrow, look up and wave.
This morning I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont—UVM, home of the Catamounts, in Burlington. My wife Deb and I, and our colleague John Tierney, visited UVM several years ago and wrote about it in our American Futures series, notably with John’s piece about the school’s emergence as a “public Ivy.”
Seven Days, the financially-and-journalistically successful weekly based in Burlington (which I’ve also written about), has a story about today’s commencement, here. The University’s story is here. Since the talk drew on various themes that recur in this “American Futures” thread, I’m attaching the text, below.
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University of Vermont
May 21, 2017
President Sullivan, Governor Scott, honorary degree recipients, faculty and staff, friends and family, people of Vermont and beyond, and above all members of the class of 2017 — greetings, and congratulations!
On behalf of your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and all the known and unknown supporters who have cheered and aided your journey to this glorious day, I salute you on your achievement. And I am glad as well to use the words I heard at my own college commencement many years ago, and officially “welcome you to the company of educated men and women.”
Every one of you realizes that not a one of you made this journey entirely on your own. Thus I’d like you to take a moment to stand and turn around, and look for a face of one of those crucial supporters in the crowd —or to envision an absent one in your mind—and express with cheers and applause your gratitude for what they have done.
I’ve just completed the first part of my job, which is to celebrate this moment. I turn now to the second part, which is to be brief.
In these next few minutes I’m going to try to convince you to feel good—energized, confident, important—about this very uncertain-seeming world onto which you’re about to make your mark. I’m going to argue that the generations ahead of you, including people like your parents and grandparents, and me, and those that will follow you, like the children and grandchildren you will someday have, need you to feel as if you can change the world, and to get busy doing so by putting your UVM training to maximum use.
Let’s go into that case. What’s most worth noticing about the circumstances in which we meet — right here, right now, as you begin your post-college life?
One answer would obviously be the splendor of the environment, natural and cultural alike, in which you have spent these years of study — and where, if past evidence is any guide, many of you will do your best to stay, as you start your families and build your lives. Vermonters think theirs is an exceptional place, and they are right.
Another might be the nature of this institution — supportive and adaptive, both innovative and traditional, strong in the liberal arts and the sciences — to which you should always feel indebted in more than the obvious ways, and that you, and I, should always feel proud to call alma mater.
But what I hope you’ll focus on are the times in which we meet. The times of our 45th president. Of challenges to liberal democracies and open societies all around the world. Of contested news, and siloed news, “fake news,” and ever-emergent real news. Times of imperiled science—when science matters more than ever. Of social and economic divisions, as technology unites us and drives us apart. Of increasingly urgent global threats, starting with sustainability in all forms and extending to disease and disorder and terrorism and forced migration, at a time of increasingly frayed global ability to focus on what matters and cooperate.
And the message I have about this era, your era, is that it is a terrible time—and a wonderful time, and that only by keeping that dual reality constantly in mind will you be prepared to contain what’s worst and foster what’s best. I even have specific suggestions of steps you can take toward that end.
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The idea of good and bad coexisting — of triumph and tragedy, of hope and despair — is as old as American history, as old as the Bible, as old as human beings grappling with our own fallibility.
The most famous opening lines in English literature may be “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which as all UVM grads know is from A Tale of Two Cities. When I was attending my own commencement ceremony, a young historian named Michael Kammen was about to win the Pulitzer Prize for a book called People of Paradox. It was about the coexistence at every moment of U.S. history of the very best and the near-worst of the human enterprise: America as arena for unprecedented opportunity, but also of slavery and attacks on a native population and centuries of excess and strife. What I consider the most important essay about American self-governance, “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James in 1910, explores why the greatest American disaster, the Civil War, brought forth its greatest presidential leadership and countless acts of selfless behavior.
Because we know that the United States has survived its past eras of turmoil and failure, we are naturally tempted to think it was destined to do so, and that the previous eras’ challenges could not have been, or felt, as serious as our own.
But I think back to my own graduation, in 1970, in what we now consider a stylistically embarrassing era but a time of middle class prosperity. Yet I remember that in those times hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese were dying each week in combat; and that the world environmental crisis was dawning; and that discrimination of kinds you would find incredible was still enshrined by custom and law; and that many American cities were literally in flames.
It was a terrible time, which felt more on-the-edge even than the world does to you now; yet because of the social and environmental reforms, and the scientific and technical breakthroughs, that flowed from it, was a wonderful time as well.
I could think back to my father’s graduation from college, in the era we now revere for the “Greatest Generation” coherence of American society. Except, he never had a graduation, since he was rushed through college in two years for training as a Navy doctor as part of the all-out effort to save the world from Nazism and fascism. A terrible time, which brought out wonderful traits in people.
Or I could go back a generation more to my grandfather’s graduation, during the early-1900s flowering of American innovation and expansion that laid down much of the physical look of the country today. Except that he, like 99 per cent of the American population at the time, never went to college — and was unusual even for finishing high school, which barely a tenth of Americans did.
My point is not that things used to be tougher – this is not a “kids today!”
speech -- but that they have always been challenging, even in this overall most favored of lands. And that in the moment our forebears felt as troubled and uncertain about national prospects as many of you do now.
More fundamentally I am suggesting that remembering the travails of the past helps us be precise about what is distinctively challenging in this time, which will be your time. To me the precise statement of America’s problem in your times involves national level politics, which are in stark contrast to most of the rest of American life.
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Let me explain. National policy and politics matters, obviously — this is how the United States won its wars, expanded its frontiers, invested in technologies, supported universities and advanced social equality. But national politics and policy — the ability to address collective problems in a reasonable, compromise-minded, fact-based, and future-oriented way — are the major failure of national life right now. It’s not as bad as during the Civil War, but by any other standard we’re at a low ebb.
Each of you has an illustration of what you like, and don’t, in the national politics of the moment. For me, personally, the main point of pain is the rejection of the thing I most love about my country. My wife Deb – who one year ago was an honorary-degree recipient (at the University of Redlands) -- and I have spent many years of our life outside the United States. And the experience of living elsewhere has reinforced the idea that what is noblest and more powerful about this country is precisely its openness to talent from around the world. My America is a place that gives immigrants and “the wretched refuse” of the world — the words on the Statue of Liberty — a chance to make this arena for their dreams and ambitions, despite all the difficulties of adjustment. My America is not the one that builds a wall. Many of you have seen that process of absorption underway here in Burlington; some of you have lived it in your own lives.
I’m sure some of you see this differently from me. Some may be pleased with the national direction; some are more concerned about other questions, from climate to health care to criminal justice or drug abuse to a dozen others within the United States and worldwide. But whatever your views, whatever your loyalties, I am here to say that this is as promising a time as it is challenging, and we need you to stay engaged where the promise exists — which for the foreseeable future is not at the national but the local level of American life.
How can I say this about local possibilities? I’ll try with a test. How many of you think of UVM and Burlington and Vermont as special places? As places that are exceptions to the national trend? That are moving forward?
I bet many of you do. And you have better grounds than most. But having spent several years traveling around parts of the country less obviously special than this, I can tell you that in much of the country people feel just the same way about where they are from. They feel that they are doing better, in the part of the country within their own experience, than what they hear about the country as a whole. They say that in Mississippi, with all its burdens. They say it in South Dakota. They say it in Arizona and Oregon and South Carolina and rustbelt Michigan and Pennsylvania. Everyone in this country is aware of the nation’s problems. But most places, most people feel that the greatest possibilities are through local involvement, and that they are moving ahead rather than falling behind.
They’re local in their emphasis on new manufacturing models. New models of conservation and sustainability. New ways of matching underemployed talent with decently paying opportunities. New accommodation for refugees and immigrants. New practicality in politics and health care and education and law enforcement— which is what Deb and I have been chronicling in our travels around today’s United States.
Local solutions can never fully substitute for national or global approaches. But for now they are what’s possible, and for the long run they are the fabric from which larger solutions are woven.
At the time of my graduation, the saying was: think global, act local. That’s one of the few 1970s mottos that has held up well. Local economics, local politics, local schools, local communities — that’s what the world, and the country, needs from you. Historians tell the story of America’s great post-Gilded Age reform through the tale of presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning to his distant cousin Franklin at the end. But what those presidents did would never have been possible without labor activists in the midwest and far west, women’s rights activists, environmental activists, black activists, muckrakers and civic reformers and community organizers and a thousand illustrations more. Theirs is the example we need you to follow.
Which means, in particular, what? Here are some illustrations.
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First and always, vote. It sounds simple and stupid and pointless, but you have to do it every time, and crucially for every office. School boards have a tremendous say over our nation’s future. Vote for them. Mayors have more control over local environment and livability than most US Senators. Vote for them. After the next census state legislatures will determine whether our politics continue in a dysfunctionally gerrymandered system. Vote for ones who will fix that. Control of the House and Senate next year will have ramifications for decades. Vote.
Second, run for office. No joke—as soon as you’re old enough, of course. We need you. In the late 1800s, the aristocratic Theodore Roosevelt shocked his social set by deciding to join the squalid hurly-burly of asking the public’s support. You may not all be aristocrats. But you can make a difference as he did then. Someone will hold these offices. Let it be you — at the city and county and state and congressional level. If you don’t run, work for and give money to people who do.
Third, subscribe — to a newspaper, a magazine (like the Atlantic!), to the sources of news that will keep us free. Independent information has never been more important, and it’s rarely been under more serious economic challenge. Even if you don’t think you have time for a given publication, even if you disagree with parts of its outlook, even if you can get it for free, vote with your dollars, for your future, and subscribe.
Fourth, engage — in anything. Join. Participate. Meet. Go out of your way not to cocoon but to build and maintain face-to-face connections wherever you end up. Join the library board, a dance group, sports leagues, the YMCA, a church or synagogue or mosque. To put it differently, serve. The United States will not again have mandatory conscription, and today’s military is so small that barely one percent of the population has served during all of our current long wars. But consider joining the reserves or going on active duty; make a point of knowing people who have served.
When public life is going well, we have the luxury of not thinking about it. It’s like going to a restaurant, rather than having to shop and make dinner yourself. We’re all needed in the kitchen now— starting with the freshest and brightest and most idealistic among us, by which I mean you.
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There are other lessons-of-life I would love to give you, but for which there is no time. I will say that when in doubt, please call your parents to say hi, especially your mom. In your own role as mothers or fathers, spend more time with your children than you think reasonable. You will never regret it, and you will regret doing anything else.
Your habits become your life, so pay attention to them. Get in the habit of sports and exercise Get in the habit of being happy. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored.
And get in the habit of engagement. We are counting on you, and on this day we celebrate what the University of Vermont has done to prepare you, for the service we need from you, starting right now.#
As we’ve been working away on our book based on our “American Futures” travels over the past four years, my wife Deb and I have increasingly come to think of Erie, Pennsylvania, as the representative American city of this moment.
OK, there are a lot of other candidates: Fresno and San Bernardino, in California; Columbus and its neighbors in Mississippi; Greenville and Greer in South Caroline; Eastport in Maine; Duluth in Minnesota plus its neighbor Superior, Wisconsin; Sioux Falls in South Dakota; Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas; several cities around Bend in central Oregon; and …
But in all of these, with particular sharpness in Erie, you see the shoulder-to-shoulder juxtaposition of two crucial realities in modern American life. One is the human pain, dislocation, and disruption caused by the overlapping forces of technological change and global competition. The other is the human ingenuity, passion, practicality, and optimism involved in figuring out responses.
Deb and I have written extensively about the way this drama has played out in Erie, for instance: here, here, here, here, here, and here, with more coming in our book. For now I want to highlight a video that some of our friends in Erie put together and released today. You can see it below, or go its Facebook page here.
This video, powerfully narrated by hip hop artistCharles Brown, was in response to a long series of pre- and post-election broadcast reports about Erie that covered only one side of its saga: the mainly older people who had mainly held big-factory jobs, and having lost those jobs were mainly angry and downcast about the prospects for themselves, their city, and the country as a whole. Shorter version: Erie as background for pieces on “the making of Trump voters,” although the city of Erie itself stayed Democratic last fall. (The surrounding suburban and rural counties went for Trump, as of course did Pennsylvania.)
The video touches on many aspects of a renascent Erie, as covered in dispatches about and others: the Jefferson Educational Society, an unusually ambitious and vibrant civic organization; the Behrend campus of Penn State, with many advanced-manufacturing projects; Hero biofuels, covered in our Atlantic video about Erie; the Erie Reader, part of the diaspora of revived alt-papers we’ve seen around the country; the Radius CoWork space, also covered in our Atlantic video; the county Gaming Authority, with an unusual civic-investment strategy; Erie Insurance, which is making huge new investments downtown; the many local universities; a wonderland of breweries; the MenajErie design studio, which helped create this video; and Epic Web Studios, which does international-standard web-design work from downtown Erie—and which, in fact, I and a group of colleagues in Washington hired to design a site for a local civic project. (More about Epic and others, to come.) And many more. After the video itself, which was produced by John Lyons of Lyons Den Productions in Erie, I encourage you to stay for the credits list, which starts at time 4:20 and shows how many local organizations were involved in creating this project. You don’t get that scale of involvement without the sort of civic fabric that holds communities (or countries) together and allows them to thrive.
Congratulations to our friends in Erie—who face lots of challenges, and are fully aware of it, but who have prepared themselves for the struggle. Please check this out.
Does the panache and tone of this video remind me of any other statement from the Great Lakes / Rust Belt region? Yes it does—and in a good way. I am thinking of course of the famous 2011 “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ad featuring Eminem. I was living in Beijing when I saw this and thought: That’s my America. So too with this new brief film.
If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”
Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.
What initially drew our attention to the city was its purposeful role as a welcoming point for immigrants and refugees. If people from the area were moving away, why not attract those who historically and actuarially have a higher-than-average rate of entrepreneurship and business formation? Today the weekly Erie Reader published a magnificent feature: a large-format photo display of refugees who have made Erie their home.
I’ll let you go to the feature, on “Rust Belt New Americans: A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population,” to see the several dozen portraits, by Iraqi-American photographer Maitham Basha-Agha (with accompanying narration). I’ll say that this conveys part of what we saw in Erie—and Sioux Falls and Burlington and Fresno and other places with significant refugee populations—and is so much at odds with the fearful national policies of the moment.
Here’s one portrait, of Afrim Latifi, originally of Kosovo, now an insurance agent and soccer coach:
Another of our friends in Erie who is featured in the story—Ferki Ferati, now executive director of the civically important Jefferson Educational Society in Erie—also arrived as a young refugee from Kosovo.
And here are two Muslim sisters now in Erie schools:
While I’m at it, here is a story from GoErie.com, with videos of people coming out on a frigid-cold Lake Erie day to rally in support of their refugees and immigrants, and against the new ban.
The psephologists and other polling experts have confirmed it: the areas with the greatest anti-refugee or -immigrant fear and fury are the ones with the least first-hand exposure to newcomers. Congratulations and respect to our friends in Erie for the spirit they are showing.
We could use a little positive news at the moment, right? Here you go:
Over the past three years we’re written a lot about Fresno in general, one of the unglamorous cities of California’s Central Valley that is fighting its way back as a tech and cultural center, and about Bitwise Industries in particular. Bitwise, which we wrote about here, here, and here, is one of several organizations around the country (like the Iron Yard in Greenville, S.C., and Radius and Epic and others in Erie, Pa.) that are pioneering the ideas of creating opportunities in left-behind areas; of expanding those opportunities to left-behind people; and meanwhile helping redevelop downtowns and bring a sense of pizzazz and possibility to their cities.
Yesterday in Fresno, Bitwise made another big announcement, of a physical expansion combined with a social and civic goal. The physical expansion was the steady growth of its business to several more historic downtown structures, including the Hotel Virginia and old warehouses.
Tim Sheehan’s story in the Fresno Bee about the announcement said:
Bitwise, the self-proclaimed “mothership of technological education, collaboration and innovation” in Fresno, announced Wednesday that it will grow … into three additional sites....
And for the first time, Bitwise is including a residential component in its plans – a four-story, 28-unit apartment building next to the State Center building.
“It’s great. I like the fact that they are getting into real estate – the residential side of things,” Aaron Blair, president of Downtown Fresno Partnership, said at a news conference where the project was announced. .. The expansion will make a dent in, but not completely satisfy, a Bitwise waiting list of software and technology companies for as much as 500,000 square feet of office space.
As for the social and civic aspirations behind the expansion, it’s worth reading the open-letter manifesto by Bitwise’s founders, Irma Olguin and Jake Soberal. They don’t directly address the national politics of the moment, but they don’t need to:
By any objective standard, Bitwise is working. But Bitwise isn’t nearly enough. Though it may lift our region’s economy to new heights, it won’t mean anything unless we also choose to be good. Should we build an economic engine that prolifically creates jobs and opportunity? Absolutely. Bitwise can be that. But to really heal our city we--all of us--must also rise to be a people that lives out a different sort of virtue.
It won’t be enough if Bitwise does just what technology has done in other cities… To us, if all of the hubbub we create isn’t coupled with a culture of acceptance, inclusiveness, and heart, then we haven’t created the best version of ourselves.
But the story doesn’t have to end that way. Fresno, and Bitwise, can be different. We’ve been different before….
That’s America. That’s our identity. And lest the world forget, we etched it there, at the foot of the Statute of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, temptest-tost to me…
Translation: “Dear World, We are the humans that you’ve cast out as junk, and from us we’re creating a great nation. Please send more of your ‘junk.'"
These ideals are ours. We can live out these ideals. We can swell a courage big enough to create something different and better in Fresno. Bitwise can help us to be economically prosperous, and the history we share can help us to be radically good.
Let’s show up to someone else’s thing.
Let’s care about someone who does not belong to our tribe.
Let’s care about someone who does not belong to our tribe. A useful thought for this moment, from successful tech entrepreneurs building the next Fresno, and the next America.
Arriving in Tucson, we felt the inklings of coming full circle with our American Futures project. Only one more leg of our journey, about 400 miles, before we reached our destination of the San Bernardino airport, and on to a writing base at the University of Redlands in Southern California. For the record, here, here, and here are the three previous road reports since we departed from Washington D.C.
I was very excited about finally getting to Tucson. During our several visits to Ajo, Arizona, about 130 miles to the west of Tucson, I first learned about one of the fearless, indomitable and I daresay under-appreciated women who left a mark on America. Isabella Greenway was Arizona’s first Congresswoman, as part of FDR’s New Deal Democratic majority. But before that she helped build and bring the beautiful copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona to its heyday. We visited Ajo several times over the past three years, and have chronicled some of its creative rebirth.
In 1930, after her time in Ajo and before her time in Congress, Isabella Greenway also founded and opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which was, I had heard, still thriving today under the family eye.
Over our three years of landing in the towns of America, we could never be too choosy about hotels. We considered ourselves lucky if we found a place with “suites” in the name, as in “Homewood Suites” or “Best Western Suites” or “Hampton Inn & Suites.” This was mostly because “suites” suggested an on-site place to do laundry and a little extra elbow room, which were both welcome attributes when two people were working in the same space and also generating a lot of dirty clothes.
So, a visit to the Arizona Inn was very special, and it turned out to be exactly what I imagined. Isabella Greenway herself described it as “a simple, home-like, cottage hotel” but it is much more than that, with high-ceilinged-oversized rooms, quiet green spaces, a big pool (almost 20 meters by my stroke count), wonderful food, and a hospitality still imbued with the family’s sensibility.
On a whim, I emailed the current proprietor, Patty Doar, who is the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway. To my surprise, she emailed right back. We met the next morning with her and her son and co-proprietor, the writer Will Conroy, swapping stories and photos about the different pieces of the story that we each knew.
We all had stories: Our updates on Ajo; their recollections of Isabella Greenway; connecting the dots between Ajo and Eastport Maine, where we also spent several American Futures visits; Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and her visit to the Roosevelt’s summer camp at Campobello Island, right across the water from Eastport. Such serendipity was a special feature of American Futures that we had come to relish and appreciate.
We left Tucson reluctantly, but with the auspicious sign of strong tailwinds, the first we’d enjoy on this cross-continent trip. Just north of Gila Bend, Jim and I were chatting about our introduction to the area’s Barry Goldwater Bombing Range back when we were first visiting Ajo (as described here), and the impressive aerial training of the Air Force A-10 attack planes and other military aircraft in the vicinity.
About then, the air traffic controller (ATC) told us they had lost radar contact with our plane. This wasn’t so surprising—it often happened with a relatively low altitude flight, or in remote areas far from controllers, or with natural impediments like mountains. Jim recycled the transponder, which often cleared up the connection between our plane and the controllers. This time, nothing.
Then the dials and gauges on the cockpit monitors—showing ground speed, wind direction and speed, location, just about everything—began to go haywire. They spun around randomly, showing a 150 knot headwind, then a tailwind, then no wind. The moving map showing our location, waypoints, position relative to obstacles and restricted airspace and other airplanes, suddenly blanked out as if it had no idea where our plane actually was. Red warning signs popped up on the dual GPS guidance systems (almost everything in the plane’s critical instrumentation has a backup) saying that they had lost their signal—the sort of thing you see in a car if you’re in a long tunnel.
I could tell that this was getting Jim’s attention. Then we both were alarmed by an urgent automated voice yelling “TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” This was from the system designed to give a last-minute warning if the plane was headed to dangerously high terrain (like a mountain, or anything with a higher elevation than the plane’s). We were getting this warning even though the closest mountains were dozens of miles away, and the desert floor was in clear view many thousands of feet below us. Jim switched to his old-school, pre-GPS “VOR”-based navigation systems to figure out where we were supposed to go, and how we could keep clear of the abundant nearby military-restricted zones. (It was easy enough to keep clear of the mountains, just by using our eyes.) Once Jim determined that we had lost all GPS guidance, he felt safe disabling the incessant TERRAIN! TERRAIN! warning, which was triggered because the plane’s instruments had no idea where the plane was and were being hyper-cautious because of surrounding mountains. I studied the dials, thinking— overdramatically—that this is how the world as we know it would look during some kind of nefarious global technological takeover.
It was dark comfort to hear a call from United 404, reporting to ATC that their GPS had also just conked out. At least it wasn’t just our plane. But, hey, what did it mean that others planes’ GPS were going out? And, an airliner’s?
The ATC said calmly, there must be GPS jamming going on, as part of a military test exercise. As we crossed the border into California, after about half an hour of no GPS, the guidance signal flickered back on. Later, on the ground, Jim learned that the Air Force was running a month-long trial in that area, testing the effects of intentional GPS outages. Thanks for letting us know, I thought.
As we flew over Palm Springs, the aerial roadsigns were becoming familiar: the mountains, the towns below, the windfarms, the Banning Pass that would let us through to the Southern California basin.
We opted for the route straight through the pass, although a controller told us about a pilot report from half an hour earlier of moderate to severe turbulence. In windy conditions, the Banning Pass can be dicey, because it’s the very narrow outlet through which air from the Mojave Desert to the east spills into the Los Angeles basin. Bumps are never fun, but they’re not actually dangerous to the plane, and the pass was by far the most direct way to our destination in San Bernardino. We tightened our seat belts, put away all loose items, and got ready for the dozen or so miles of potentially rough air between Palm Springs and the pass’s outlet near the city of Banning.
As it happened, we needn’t have worried. The turbulence didn’t materialize; the air was smooth. We spotted the San Bernardino Airport (SBD), and Jim set up the route for landing to the east. The pilot in front of us reported a “go around,” or missed landing, because the crosswinds were so gusty as he neared touchdown. He said he would circle around for a second try. Jim guided our Cirrus in, hovering near touchdown in the gusts for a few hundred feet and remarking to the controller that he was happy for the very long and wide runway at SBD, which had once accommodated B-52s when this site was the now-closed Norton Air Force Base.
Arrived. And feeling a world away from Washington D.C., some 3000 miles and four days later.
We took off west from Demopolis, Alabama, prepared for a lot of flying ahead on this last journey for The Atlantic’sAmerican Futures project. (First two installments in the series, taking us from D.C. to Alabama, here and here. ) We passed over Meridian and Jackson, in Mississippi, just a ways south of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point, where we spent several reporting trips to the booming manufacturing center of the so-called Golden Triangle.
I have always looked forward to crossing the Mississippi River. We’ve done that in just about every state through which the mighty river flows, especially in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. There it would be today in the state of Mississippi, below us just around Vicksburg. I was worried about even getting a glimpse because of the low-overcast clouds, which we were flying above (on an “instrument flight plan” because we were expecting to have to land in cloudy conditions). We watched the navigation maps on the cockpit monitors, and just as we were about to cross, the clouds parted. Jim banked the plane so as to dip the wing on my right seat side, and I stole enough of a look to recognize the unmistakably mighty Mississippi.
We stopped for fuel in Minden, just shy of Shreveport, aiming for Dallas to install the software patch that we needed for weather readings. There’s always something, even in this little plane; it amazes me that the big boys fly around with as few mechanical and technological delays as they do.
By the time we were ready to take off from Dallas the next day, a cool drizzle had moved in, reminding us why we avoided winter during most of our flying in the last three years. For the next three hours after departure (again on an instrument plan), we were either in the thick cloud layer or just above it, barely seeing the vast stretches of west Texas below us or the sun above.
I think Jim enjoys the challenge of this kind of flying. He is always on top of the instruments, pushing buttons of one sort or another, checking gauges, and testing the redundant systems. For me, this opaque flying is unpleasant, sometimes even boring. I don’t like the absence of orientation. Most pilots, I’ve learned, have a zealous passion for flying. It’s something they can’t not do, and they don’t seem to mind the conditions. For the rest of us, well, I for one consider flights like these functional. The plane is getting me west.
The air traffic controllers were busy over west Texas. There is a lot of military airspace, and we could hear the calls from “Fighter 25” and “Fighter 26,” working with the air traffic controller (ATC). There were at least five medevac flights calling in that day, which seemed like a lot until you considered the long desolate stretches of road lying between sick or injured people and medical attention. In rural Ajo, Arizona, we knew that rural medical care meant that pregnant women often took precautions to drive the 200 miles to Phoenix or Tucson some weeks in advance of their delivery dates. The medevac flights always took priority, no questions asked.
Pilots requested vectoring to get to Amarillo, San Angelo, Dalhart, Alpine, El Paso. The names were exotic and evocative to me. When the ATC chatter died out, we switched to Sirius/XM radio, toggling among some of our favorites. Road Dog Trucking warned about winter road conditions over Omaha and St. Louis and impending ice storms. Rural Radio would offer local crop prices or advice on pest control, depending on when and where we were flying. There are entire stations dedicated to Willie Nelson, or Bruce Springsteen, or music of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. There is Coffee House music, jazz, and the often-irreverent Catholic guys on the Catholic Channel.
We ascended to 10,000 feet to cross the very southern remnants of the Rockies, the Guadalupe Mountains, on our way to Las Cruces. This reminded me of the tail end of the Great Wall that we climbed in Gansu province in China, where the crumbling remains became little but an obstacle for the farmers to work around in their fields. Finally, the cloud cover was dissipating.
Our little cabin isn’t pressurized; it’s legal to fly without oxygen up to 14,000 feet (after 30 minutes at 12,500 feet, the pilot has to use oxygen, of which we have small emergency-use bottles on board). But I felt myself involuntarily taking longer, deeper breaths. And I also checked the color of my fingernail beds for any tinge of blue, which signals oxygen deprivation. We were fine, of course.
We refueled in Las Cruces, looking for late afternoon lunch and settling on the beef jerky I always packed for such lean times. We decided to press on another hour or so to Tucson. The mountains deflated into undulating brown hills. There were flatlands with some volcanic outcroppings or long stretches of almost-surreal desert landscapes.
Sightings of such geology—volcanic or the colored striations of angular mountainsides—always make us feel very small and our moments on this earth fleeting. Not to wax too dramatic, but flying does that to your perspective.
Finally, Tucson. Approaches for landing follow a U-shaped pattern. The goal is to land flying into the wind, which offers more control. Basically, you fly “downwind” along the side of the airfield, in the opposite of the direction in which you intend to land. (In this case, we were on a “right downwind” because we would be making a series of right-hand turns toward the airfield on our right.) Then you turn 90 degrees, called turning “base”, for a short hop perpendicular to the runway. Then you turn another 90 degrees for “final” and you’re home free.
As we were about to turn base, the winds suddenly shifted. Really suddenly. The Tucson Approach controller told Jim to loop around in exactly the opposite direction from what he was planning, and prepare to land on the same runway in the opposite direction. (For airplane buffs: we had been planning to land on with “right traffic” for Runway 11 Right. Suddenly the winds favored landing in the opposite direction, with left traffic for Runway 29 Left, which is the same strip of asphalt headed the opposite way.) Surprise!
It’s moments like these that I’m grateful for the professionalism of the ATCs, grateful for constant upkeep and training that Jim does as a pilot, and grateful that all the other pilots from those in the big commercial regional jets or the fancy little Citations or the humble single engine propeller planes like ours, are nearly always reliable, too.
We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.
Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.
Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.
We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.
The night before, at a cozy, delicious Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.
At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.
In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories. The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.
Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression, had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.
Famous visiting dignitaries could take a lesson from the Gateses, who impressed Demopolis with moments that people would remember and retell for decades. Connie said that the Gateses were as nice as could be; she didn’t wear a touch of make-up; he held his tie in place against the wind with a piece of tape. “The world’s richest man had no tie clip,” she marveled. And his hand was “as soft as a baby’s bottom” when you shook it. The Gateses traveled by bookmobile that day, heading off from Demopolis over to Selma and then on to Montgomery to catch a plane.
The top floor of the Demopolis Public Library was the piece de resistance – the children’s floor. The space was as bright and comfy and engaging as any library’s children’s room I’ve seen in any town around America. It served many purposes from the toddlers’ story time to the opportunities for the town’s sizable home-schooled population.
We walked around the town’s Kingfisher Bay Marina, which is a popular stopover for the snowbirds on their southern migration from the north down to the Gulf. Loopers, as we heard the boaters called in Demopolis, follow a 6000 mile system of natural and also manmade paths that include the Great Lakes, the Intracoastal Waterways, and in Demopolis, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. (Tombigbee is probably a Choctaw word that means “box maker,” according to a local historian from another of our most favorite nearby towns, Columbus Mississippi.)
One hardy woman we met on the dock, who lived on their houseboat year round, said that last week, it had been so cold that her husband had to chop up the ice that formed on the docks. Other boats gamely decorated in tropical Christmas lights, and others boasted questionable-sounding home ports of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Occoquan, Virginia, both of which are landlocked, as far as I know.
The loud marina dredging was running about eight hours a day now, making sure the riverbed didn’t silt up and prevent the big boats from docking there along their Loop passage. The dredging process spewed out and sifted the sludge into fine sand, an ingredient for the cement, and gravel, which was sold elsewhere.
Before we left the next morning, Mike Grayson toured us around the location of the recently announced Two Rivers Lumber Company, at the site of a former barge-manufacturing plant. The site was located between the river, where they had floated the new barges away, and the airport. Parades of big rigs were lining up to dump their loads of timber to the paper mill, at the far end of the runway. Between the paper mill, which handled the smaller circumference timber and the new saw mill, which would take the bigger timber, they had Alabama’s forest clearing covered.
Mike Grayson, with the spirit of town visionaries we had seen across the country, pointed to the forests as we were crossing the highway at the end of the airport road. “This may sound crazy, but when I look across the road here at that forest, what I see is more industry.” We recognized that these were the words of the dreamers and visionaries who are building and rebuilding American towns.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
History suggests that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to have a tough two years and a disaster in the midterms. Here’s their plan to avoid that.
Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.
The best shows of the 45th presidency captured the essence of an unprecedented leader by seeing past his act.
Late last year, at the end of my parental leave, I finally caught up with The Comey Rule, Showtime’s stolid adaptation of former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir about—among other things—being fired by Donald Trump. A cluster of TV stars play the civil servants elevated by the MAGA internet into almost mythological characters: Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin as the text-crossed lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But the real draw is Brendan Gleeson playing Trump. The Irish actor gives a fantastic performance that dances between impersonation and interpretation: Physically, Gleeson has the lunatic bronzer, the grimace, the sagging tie. More crucially, he captures the former president’s pettiness and malice in a way that communicates how dangerous those qualities can be, in tandem and totally unchecked. Gleeson’s Trump seethes and crawls around the White House like a swamp creature in a Brioni suit. It’s one of the most striking TV performances of the past four years. And I watched it and felt nothing at all.
Could a truth and reconciliation commission help the country heal?
Until the day that a violent mob stormed the Capitol building, it seemed possible that Donald Trump would be able to shuffle into postpresidential life without facing any real consequences. President-elect Joe Biden had indicated his anxiety over a potential prosecution of the former president. Commentators muttered about the political divisiveness of pursuing Trump after he left office. Better, perhaps, to look forward, not backward, as President Barack Obama famously said of potential lawbreaking under the Bush administration.
Then, after being egged on by the president on January 6, pro-Trump rioters broke into the Capitol and terrorized staffers and members of Congress. The House of Representatives impeached Trump a second time—setting in motion a process that, if successful, could bar him from seeking the presidency in 2024. According to The New York Times, the overwhelming mood of Democratic politicians and activists lurched toward support for investigations, prosecutions, and other forms of accountability. As law enforcement continued searching for rioters, the very same Republican politicians who had earlier been stoking chaos frantically backpedaled, issuing statements calling for “unity” and “healing.”
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
Cloth masks are better than nothing, but they were supposed to be a stopgap measure.
If you’re like most Americans, there’s a good chance you’re going to wear a cloth mask today. Doing so makes sense. It remains the official recommendation in the United States, and it is something we’ve both advocated since the beginning of the pandemic. Both of us wrotearticles as far back as March urging people to wear homemade cloth masks. We’re also the authors (along with 17 other experts) of a paper titled “An Evidence Review of Face Masks Against COVID,” which was just published in peer-reviewed form in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But it’s past time for better solutions to be available to the public.
We first released the paper as a preprint back in April, and it took nine months to go through peer review. We’re happy that it’s published but, to be honest, we’re also deeply disappointed that it’s still relevant. We’d hoped that by 2021 supply chains would have ramped up enough to ensure that everyone had better masks. Cloth masks, especially homemade ones, were supposed to be a stopgap measure. Why are so many of us still wearing them?
Millions of Americans sympathize with the Capitol insurrection. Everyone else must figure out how to live alongside them.
They could be real-estate agents or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.
As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
Hopefully one day, getting vaccinated will mean you no longer need a mask. But not yet.
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at email@example.com.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
I’m still confused about what our lives will be like after we are vaccinated. As I understand it, it will still be possible to get the virus, but hopefully the course won’t be as severe or life-threatening. And we are going to have people who won’t even get the vaccine. Do you foresee us still wearing masks for the next year or two? I hate to even type this question.
New London, New Hampshire
I can’t wait to stop wearing masks. I want to go out without a mask so badly that I’ve been dreaming about it. That’s how far the pandemic has lowered the ambitions of my dreams.